Antimatter Breakthrough: Big Batch Created in Lab

Robert S. Boyd
Miami Herald
September 20, 2002

Scientists announced a major breakthrough in their long struggle to understand the weirdest stuff in the universe—antimatter, the mirror image of ordinary matter.

A team of European physicists reported the creation in a Swiss laboratory of at least 50,000 atoms of antihydrogen, the fictional fuel in Star Trek's imaginary "warp-drive."

It was the first time that a significant quantity of antiatoms, the looking-glass cousins of normal atoms, has been produced on Earth, according to a report published on the Internet by the British journal Nature.

Antimatter is composed of electrons and protons, the raw materials of atoms, but with a whopping difference—the electrical charge.

Battery Terminals

Like poles on a battery, a normal electron has a negative charge, while a proton is positively charged. In antimatter, however, the charges are reversed. The electron's antimatter counterpart, known as a positron, carries a positive charge. The antiproton has a negative charge.

Ordinary hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element in the universe, consists of one electron orbiting one proton. Antihydrogen has one positron and one antiproton.

When matter and antimatter collide, they annihilate each other and emit a burst of electromagnetic energy. The Reagan administration's "Star Wars" project briefly toyed with the idea of using this force to destroy incoming Soviet missiles, but abandoned it as unworkable.

Since the first positrons (antielectrons) were detected in 1932, thousands of physicists have been laboring to create or collect antimatter, using the world's mightiest nuclear colliders, orbiting spaceships, and balloon-borne detectors.

"We spend all day making antimatter," said Nigel Lockyer, a physicist at the Department of Energy's Fermilab near Chicago, which churns out 50 billion antiprotons in an hour.

"Every year we check the latest data, hoping to find the first ambassador from the antiworld," said Jonathan Ormes, a physicist at NASA's Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics in Greenbelt, Maryland. Ormes' group uses high-flying balloons to trap cosmic rays, looking for antimatter particles zooming in from outer space.

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